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Arabic Writing 



Thomas Bauer 



The North Arabic script developed as a branch of Nabatean Aramaic script (see sec- 
tions 5 and 47). The eariiest inscriptions date back to the fourth century c.e. Since 
Aramaic has fewer consonants than Arabic, some letters came to stand for more than 
one consonant. In order to ehminate these ambiguities, from the seventh century on- 
ward dots over or under some of the letters were introduced. These diacritical dots 
form an integral part of the letter. Especially in order to comply with the need to guar- 
antee an unequivocal reading of the Holy Qur'an, further signs were introduced to de- 
note the short vowels and consonant gemination. Yet even today, these signs are only 
employed on rare occasions. After normaUzation and authoritative establishment by 
the philologists and scribes in the first centuries of Islam, only minor developments 
occurred in Arabic writing; thus the orthography of Classical Arabic and that of Mod- 
em Standard Arabic are essentially the same. This was only possible because the pho- 
nology and morphology of Modern Standard Arabic have been taken over from 
Classical Arabic without change. Insofar as Modern Standard Arabic is considered to 
be the only "valid" form of expression (though it is no one's mother tongue), there 
have been only a few attempts to employ the Arabic writing systems for the modern 
Arabic dialects (for Maltese, see section 59, "Maltese" on page 686). But another 
result of the significance of Arabic script is that it came to be used for many languages 
of Islamic lands (section 62). 

The Arabic script runs from right to left. Since it is a cursive script, letters within 
a word have to be joined wherever possible. However, the letters I a, i d, i d, j r, 
j z, and J w cannot be joined to the following letter; thus minimal spaces may occur 
in the middle of a word. Words are set apart by greater spaces, but lexical units which 
are represented by only one letter are joined to the following word. Other than the six 
letters just mentioned, each letter may occur in four different positions: initial, medi- 
al, final, and isolated (as when a letter is the last letter of a word and is preceded by 
one of the six letters not joinable on the left side). This may have consequences for 
the shape of a letter — e.g., the curves of the final and isolated forms of letters like ^ h 
and r /? are omitted in initial and medial positions. Ligatures are quite often employed 
in handwriting. The ligature dl-\- \a = *)i Idis obligatory even in print and typewriting. 

The importance of calligraphy (section 20) in the Islamic arts is hardly paral- 
leled in any other culture. Several calHgraphic styles, developed from early times, are 
not only used in books but became an integral element of architecture and crafts. 



559 



PART VIII: MIDDLE EASTERN WRITING SYSTEMS 



TABLE 50.1 : Arabic Letters 



Name 



Trans- Transcrip- Numerical 
literatiorf tion Value Isolated Final 



Initial 



Medial 



^alif 


>(a) 


[?] 


ba^ 


b 


[b] 


ta> 


t 


[t] 


ta^ 


t,th 


[e] 


gim 


idi 


m 


ha^ 


h 


m 


ha> 


h,kh 


[X] 


dal 


d 


[d] 


dal 


d,dh 


[3] 


ra> 


r 


[r] 


zay 


z 


[z] 


sin 


s, sh 


[s] 


sin 


s 


[J] 


sad 


s 


[*] 


dad 


d 


[*] 


ta^ 


t 


w 


za^ 


z 


m 


^ayn 


c 


m 


gayn 


g(g).sii 


[y] 


fa> 


f 


m 


qaf 


q,k 


[q] 


kaf 


k 


M 


lam 


1 


[1] 


mim 


m 


[m] 


nun 


n 


[n] 


ha^ 


h 


[h] 


waw 


w 


[w] 


yr 


y 


[y] 



I 


1 


2 





400 





500 


eJ 


3 


C 


8 


c 


600 


c 


4 


i 


700 


i 


200 


J 


7 


J 


60 


L^^ 


300 


A. 


90 


(>» 


800 


0^ 


9 


i. 


900 


Ji 


70 


t 


000 


t 


80 


<J 


100 


J 


20 


s 


30 


J 


40 


r 


50 


j 


5 


d 


6 


J 


10 


L^ 






J. 

J 

r 

J- 



> 
> 
> 



J:? 

i 
i 
5^ 






A 

i 

i 



4'r 



a. The main entry is the transUteration system of the Deutsche Morgenliindische Gesellschaft, used in this 
book (except a is used for ^alif for clarity throughout); the second is that of the Encyclopedia of Islam. Often 
mixtures between these two systems occur. 



Basic characters 

The Arabic script is composed of 28 letters, which are listed in table 50.1. As can 
be seen from the table, each letter represents exactly one consonant of the Arabic lan- 
guage, and each consonant is represented by exactly one letter 

Yet there are some exceptions: The letters jw,^y, and I a represent not only the 
consonants [w], [y], and (historically) [?], but also the three long vowels of Arabic, 
namely [u:], [ii], and [ai], respectively. The vowel [a:], however, may be represented 
in word-final position by \ a or ,jy (with no dots in this case, but this differentiation 
is recent and only followed in some Arab countries), the choice being dependent on 
morphological conditions; they are called ^alif maqsura bisurati I- ^alif and ^alif 
maqsura bisurati l-yd ^, respectively. 

In order to represent the glottal stop [?], the sign ^ , called hamza.wsis introduced. 
It may be used in addition to I a in word-initial position, thus giving I or I (depending 
on the following vowel). It is obligatory today in word-medial and -final positions, 
where it is combined with \ a, j w, or ^J y (without dots) or stands alone. The choice 
depends partly on phonological, partly on morphological, and partly on purely graph- 
ic considerations which are rather complicated and differ from country to country. 
However, since the five signs j * L^ j I can differentiate words (e.g. j^[j y^mn 
[ya?manu] 'he is safe' vs. j^jj [yu?manu] 'he is made safe, one is safe'), they must 
be considered as separate "graphemes." A further addition to the graphic system must 
be noted, namely the sign a (an h with two dots), which denotes the consonant [t] in 
its function as feminine ending (e.g. Ljj^ mrtbt [martabat""!, where the second t is 
the feminine ending).* Its name is td^marbUta. 

Though there are no basic characters for the short vowels, the common designa- 
tion of the Arabic script as "consonantal" is incorrect, since the long vowels are rep- 
resented but consonant gemination is not. Besides, the Arabic script gives a rather 
neat and unambiguous representation of the consonants and long vowels of the lan- 
guage. Only a few exceptions exist, e.g. in words like *JlJI allh |a4^4a:h] 'God' and \jj^ 
hda [ha:5ai], where [ai] is not expressed in writing; or the suffix ^ [-hui, -hii] 
'him/his', where the long vowel is not indicated either. 

Morphophonemic representation 

In addition to the phonetically rather flat representation of consonants and long vow- 
els, the Arabic script employs some devices to represent morphologically deeper 
structures. Thus the definite article, which is prefixed to nouns, is always written J I al 
/al-/, though the auxiliary syllable [a-] is dropped when the word occurs in the middle 
of a phrase and the /I-/ is often assimilated to the word-initial consonant of the noun: 

*Various inflectional endings that are omitted when a word occurs at the end of an utterance are transcribed 
with raised letters. 



TABLE 50.2: Arabic Numerals 



1234567890 

> r r i 1 V A s . 

jljj Jl Ji* kl al-dywan [kuUu d-di:wa:n], written as if it were /kuUu ?al-di:wa:n/ 'all 
the-administration'. Another example of morphographic writing is the addition of an 
I a ( ^aliffdsild) to third person plural and imperative plural verbs, which end with the 
letter j w [-ui], where the I a has no phonetic value: \j>6 nhwa [nahhui] 'remove (im- 
per.)' . In masculine indefinite nouns, a final I a is added to mark the accusative ending 
[-an]: Llu byta [bayt^^] 'a house (ace.)'. 

Optional signs 

One of the most characteristic features of Arabic and related scripts (Hebrew, Arama- 
ic) is the presence of an added system of diacritics to express short vowels and con- 
sonant gemination, neither of which is represented by the basic letters. These marks 
are placed above or below a basic letter. Taking as example the basic letter i J, we get 
i da, i di, : du, and : (i (the - indicating vowellessness), using the signs caHtd fatha, 
kasra, damma, and sukm respectively. The endings of the indefinite noun -un -in -an, 
which are omitted in pause, are indicated by doubling the vowel signs (tanwin): in the 
nominative : -dun, in the genitive i -din. In the accusative, one gets 6 -tan with fem- 
inine nouns. In masculine nouns, where the accusative ending is already represented 

by the letter I a, one may write fi -dan. Gemination is expressed by the sign - (sadda), 

fi i^ 3 

which may be combined with one of the short- vowel marks: i dda, i ddi, ^ ddw, 

i -ddin, i -ddun. There are further less important optional diacritics, such as i da in 
those few words where [a:] is not expressed by I a; I ( \ilif madda) in place of the se- 
quence II ^d; or a stroke placed over I a (T, ^alifwasla) to show that morphologically 
written I is not to be pronounced. The first clause of the sample text (page 563) would 
read with optional diacritics: 

All these diacritics have in common that they are of very restricted use. They are used 
throughout the text only in the Qur'an, less consistently in other authoritative reU- 
gious texts, in editions of classical poetry and in textbooks for primary education, and 
occasionally in linguistically rather complex texts to avoid ambiguities. In book titles, 
letterheads, nameplates, etc., they may be used for decorative purposes. But they are 
virtually never applied in newspapers, ordinary books, or private documents. 

The numerals are shown in table 50.2; the letters can be used with their com- 
mon Semitic numerical values (note that they reflect the ancestral order) for number- 
ing pages, lists, etc. 



The effects of defectiveness 

In texts where optional diacritics are employed, every phoneme of the language is un- 
ambiguously represented; but in texts where only basic letters are used — i.e. in the 
overwhelming majority — a certain degree of ambiguity arises, since more than a 
quarter of the phonemes remain unexpressed. So the first word of the sample text, 
^ nzr, could be read as a verb in the active form, either as [naz^ara] 'he looked' or 
as [naz^z^ara] 'he made comparisons', and also as the corresponding passive forms 
[nuz-ira] and [nuz^z-ira], or as the nominal forms [naz-ar] 'look, glance' or [niz-r] 'sim- 
ilar'. Yet in practice, the problems arising from the defectiveness of normal Arabic 
writing are not so great as one might suspect. First, a quarter of the non-expressed 
phonemes occur in endings which are syntactically determined and omitted in less 
formal speech anyway. Above all, the occurrence of short vowel phonemes is more 
easily predictable in Arabic than in many other languages, since its syllabic structure 
allows only syllables of the patterns CV, CVC, and CV (under certain circumstances 
also CVC). Yet the fact remains that one can read an Arabic text correctly only if one 
knows the words. This means that Arabic writing is rather highly lexicalized. 

The disadvantages of this system have often been complained about by Arab in- 
tellectuals, who have even proposed the introduction of Roman script. Since Standard 
Arabic is no one's mother tongue, it has to be learned at school. On the other hand, 
because of the defectiveness of the script, an Arabic text can be written and read de- 
spite a great amount of dialectal interference without disregarding any of the notated 
symbols — ^but this may certainly be an obstacle to learning correct Standard Arabic. 
However, Standard Arabic adhering completely to the written norm (which is that of 
Classical Arabic as laid down in medieval grammar books) is used only in rare and 
very formal communicative situations. So it is exactly the defectiveness of the Arabic 
script which makes texts readable more according to the reality of the living language, 
enabling one to avoid the artificial effect of case-endings and other obsolete Classical 
rules without violating the symbol-sound correspondences. Furthermore, these char- 
acteristics of the Arabic script enable people to read and write Arabic more or less cor- 
rectly even if they have only reached lower educational levels. Moreover, a more 
lexicalized script, as defective Arabic writing in fact is, permits not only quicker writ- 
ing but quicker reading as well. Above all, the fear of a complete break with tradi- 
tion — cultural as well as religious, since the Qur'an, considered as eternal and 
uncreated, and thus sacrosanct not only in its wording but also in the form in which 
it is written — will make a drastic script reform impossible,, 

Sample OF Arabic 

hdry mlf hbatk d'b th yl' rhat nb hlla db' rzn<- 



PART VIII: MIDDLE EASTERN WRITING SYSTEMS 



nm^y alw thla lyl"^ hn^f nawydla 



tbtrm n^ 



11^ l^pJ 
adh awhn 



JUi 
laqf 



hryg yd*^y n^ 



/. Transliteration: nzr "^bd ^Uh bn t*hr ^ly 

2. Vocalization: nazara ^Abdullah! bnu Tahirin Hla 

J. Transcription: haz-aia ^abduliaihi bnu ^a:hirin ?i1a 

4. Gloss: he. looked 'Abdallah son.of Tahir at 

/. b^d kt^bh flm yrdh fq '1 

2. ba^di kuttabihi falam yurdihl fa-qala 

J. baS^di kut:ae:bi-hii fA-Um jurdi-hi: (A-qailA 

4. part.of secretaries-his and-not it.pleased-him and-he.said 



ht 
hatti 

handwriting.of 

nhw^ hd^ 
nahhu hada 
nAtihui hae:9A 
remove this 



1. ^n mrtbt ^Idyw^n f^nh 

2. ^an martabati d-diwani fa^innahu 
S. S^An niArtAbAti d-diiwaeini fA-?innAhu: 
4. from office-of the-administration for-he 



<lyl 
*alllu 
VaUilu 
iU.of 



nht 
1-hatti 

1-XAtt^i 

the-handwriting 



/. wP y^mn 

2. wa-la yu^manu 

J. WA-Iaei ju?mAnu 

4. and-not one-is-sure 



^n y^dy gyrh 

^an yu^diya gayrahu 

?An juTdiJA yajrAhu: 

that he-infects other-he 



"^Abdallah ibn Tahir looked at the handwriting of one of his secretaries but was 
not content with it. So he said, "Remove this one from the administrative office, 
for he suffers an illness in his handwriting, and one cannot be sure that he won't 
infect others !'" - From as-Suli ig22: 52f. 



Bibliography 

Arabic 

as-Suli, Abu Bakr Muhammad (d. 946 c.e.). 1922. ^Adab al-kuttah [The accomplishments of the 
secretaries], ed. M. Bahgat al-Atari. Cairo. 

Endress, Gerhard. 1982. "Die arabische Schrift." In Grundrifi der arabischen Philologie, vol. i: 
Sprachwissenschaft, ed. Wolfdietrich Fischer, pp. 165-97. V/iesbaden: Reichert. 

Fischer, Wolfdietrich. 1996. A Grammar of Classical Arabic, trans. Jonathan Rodgers. New Haven: 
Yale University Press. (German orig., 1972.) 

Mitchell, Terence F. 1953. Writing Arabic: A Practical Introduction to Ruq ^ah Script. London: Ox- 
ford University Press. 

Safadi, Yasin Hamid. 1978. Islamic Calligraphy. London: Thames and Hudson. 

Wright, William. 1896-98. A Grammar of the Arabic Language, Translated from the German of 
Caspari and edited with numerous additions and corrections, 3rd ed., rev. W. Robertson Smith 
and M. J. de Goeje. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Repr. 1967. 



THE WORLD'S 
WRITING SYSTEMS 



Edited by 
Peter T. Daniels 

William Bright